Minerva Tutors CEO, Hugh Viney, explains why the government needs to look to a future of learning in the home
We’re used to seeing “homeschooling” in the news, but what isn’t commonly known is that compared to most countries around the world, the UK has very relaxed rules about educating your child at home.
In America, where it’s hugely popular, you might expect visits from official homeschooling inspectors to check you’re doing it right. Meanwhile, in places like Portugal or Turkey it’s banned altogether. But over here, it’s remarkably easy – you don’t have to enroll your child at school, you can teach them whatever you like, so long as you let your local council know.
Now, this doesn’t mean the majority of homeschooling families are throwing the national curriculum in the bin and dressing their kids in hemp. Quite the opposite. Most are in it, like any sensible parent, to ensure their child has the best opportunities in their life ahead. To do this means getting qualified. You need to take GCSEs and A Levels, study just as hard as you would do at school, sit exams as a private candidate – usually at a local “centre” – and pitch for your place at university like all the others.
But coronavirus changed things. If home-educating parents had used a professional homeschooling agency this year, then their child would have received their GCSE qualifications after the summer exams were cancelled. Such agencies were able to provide impartial predicted grades, which, like grades predicted by teachers at schools, the government accepted. What happened to the tens of thousands of kids who were being homeschooled by their parents or individual tutors? The government decided parents couldn’t be trusted to rate their own children, and no results were awarded. That’s a colossal shame, and highlights that the government has long had its eyes closed to alternative forms of education.
It’s time they woke up. Figures show that 57,132 children were registered as homeschooled children in 2018 in the UK. That’s up from 24,824 in 2013, an increase of a mighty 130%. And the numbers further increased in 2019 by 80% again. Why the increase?
Pre-coronavirus, there was a growing feeling among parents that school wasn’t equipping students for the modern world. Common complaints include: lack of encouragement of self-learning; a dearth of communication skills mixed with technical skills; lack of creative problem-solving; and an absence of skills that might actually be useful for the workplace, such as organising your daily to-do list or calendar.
Traditional, brick-and-mortar schools are also increasingly unable to meet the flexible lives led by some families who aren’t always able to reside in the same place. And with most schools unable to support children with special educational and emotional needs, it often means homeschooling is the best way to go from a mental health point of view, too.
Now, post-Covid, most of the UK has woken up to the fact that not only is homeschooling possible, but in some cases, it might also be preferable. Many children have thrived in lockdown. Despite some tabloid horror stories, so too have parents. Even a glimpse of a new parent-teacher model was enough to prompt 1000s of enquiries to our companies inbox.
The story was largely the same. Parents started seeing homeschooling as a viable alternative to school. They loved spending more time with their kids, and they wanted to know if there was a professional, regulated way to do this. Combine this with the UK becoming Zoom-qualified overnight, and our latest venture essentially founded itself. It’s an online school called Minerva’s Virtual Academy, and it teaches children (currently GCSE only) the proper curriculum through an online virtual platform, with minimal requirement for human teachers. Mentors (real humans) keep track of pupils’ progress and our students make friends with other online homeschoolers through group classes and “after-school” clubs.
We’re not alone. Other new companies are springing up to meet the demand. Existing solutions, such as Wolsey Hall Oxford, have been quoted as turning away a sharp rise in demand. Even Harrow School joined the party, launching an “online” version of their illustrious school a few years ago.
So can the government learn anything from this model? At the moment, online schools like ours are private, which means we charge fees. But this is much cheaper than hiring a personal tutor to teach your children or local councils paying for expensive tutoring companies to support homeschooled kids. It’s also a fraction of the cost of sending your kids to an actual private school.
The government is backing the National Tutoring Program, led by the EEF, with £150 million to provide much needed after-school tutoring to hundreds of thousands of pupils across the UK post Covid-19. This is highly commendable. But could online homeschooling also be used to empower some of the lost “Covid Generation” of pupils, taking some of the burden off the schools for the mammoth catch-up task ahead?
The government needs to see the bigger picture. With scalable, innovative tech platforms that teach the GCSE and A level syllabus without the need for a teacher, and dedicated one-to-one mentors that support and nurture each child and ensure they don’t fall behind, online homeschooling solutions should have a part to play in the future. If traditional schools and their teachers are going to continue to be stretched, then online homeschooling done in the right way could be a solution. We may be outliers at the moment, but innovation in education is happening. I’m calling on the government to get with the program.
Hugh Viney is the founder of Minerva Tutors, whose Virtual Academy designs bespoke homeschooling programs for pupils aged 6-18, either at home or online